Yarbrough lived and raced fast, fell even faster
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- On one unusually dusty Saturday night in 1960, more than 6,000 fans filled every seat in the grandstands, clogged the small infield and sat on tree limbs outside the race track to watch the weekly show.
The hometown hero, Lonnie “LeeRoy” Yarbrough was leading coming into the third turn of the final lap at Speedway Park when his left-front wheel and axle broke loose from his car and landed behind pit road. Instead of pulling over, he mashed the gas pedal and still won the race on three wheels.
People who grew up on Jacksonville’s rough Westside already knew Yarbrough never backed down. That tenacity quickly elevated the devilishly handsome man to a legendary status, both on and off the track.
It also may have contributed to his death.
The locals knew him as a man with remarkable skills and an amazing lack of fear, a combination that helped him quickly outgrow the Westside for extraordinary fame and fortune in NASCAR.
He won the Daytona 500, World 600 and Southern 500 in 1969. He was the first driver in NASCAR to own his own airplane. He bought a mansion and lake home in Columbia, S.C., and a bunch of new cars.
He died in 1984 penniless following a fall at a state mental hospital in Macclenny, Fla., far from the sport and the benefits of his accomplishments, after being charged with trying to choke his mother. The same man who once stood on Ed Sullivan’s stage and in Victory Lane at most of racing’s premier tracks, spent the waning years of his life wandering the same Westside streets in a search for empty bottles and soda cans to make enough loose change to buy liquor to numb his pain.
Yarbrough’s sad and curious life remains one of the most-peculiar stories in NASCAR history. So young and so fast, Yarborough made some dramatic turns that quickly took him to the pinnacle of stardom. The fall was just as fast and just as perplexing, the result of too many crashes, too many pills, too much booze.
And a bug bite.
Growing up on the edge of town
LeeRoy Yarbrough quit school when he was 12 and grew up in the western outskirts of Jacksonville, a decidedly blue-collar neighborhood of concrete block homes, screen doors and dirt streets. By then, he already knew he wanted to drive a race car. According to his sister, Evelyn Motel, he used fake names to get around the minimum age requirements at the local tracks until he was 16. The first time he finally raced under his own name, he won.
The track was on the corner of Lenox Avenue and Plymouth Street, within walking distance of most of the locals. They watched races on Saturday, prayed on Sunday morning, and then drank beer later that afternoon during the special matinees at the race track.
When he wasn’t racing, Yarbrough often attracted a small crowd of children when he worked on cars at Tommy Moon’s garage. Ronnie Van Zant and Gene Odom were a couple other Westsiders who were just as tough and stubborn as their favorite driver, and they were constant fixtures at the shop – and the track.
“We sat in the pine trees between Turns 1 and 2,” Odom said. “We made our own seats up there with boards. LeeRoy was a great race car driver. He was our hero. He was wide open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“They really didn’t want kids hanging around the garage, but LeeRoy let me and Ronnie hang out. One day he took us to the track and gave us a ride in his race car. I was holding onto the roll bars, screaming to let me out the whole way. I remember Ronnie telling me that he wanted to be the most famous thing to come out of Jacksonville since LeeRoy Yarbrough.”
Van Zant made it out of the Westside, too. His band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, became the patriarch of the Southern Rock movement, while Odom became Van Zant’s bodyguard.
Yarbrough got his big break when Pee Wee Hornsby crashed his modified car at Speedway Park in 1959. Yarbrough was hired to replace him, and he went on to win 83 times in the next three years.
“He was like everybody else around this town back then – wild and country,” said his childhood friend, Bert Dyal. “He just loved them race cars. He wasn’t scared of nothing. You could build him a car, but don’t waste no money on gauges because it he gets in, he’s going to run it until he wins or blows up.”
By 1962, Yarbrough was ready for a new challenge. And NASCAR was ready for him.
Randy Herren and his father Henry never missed the weekly show at Speedway Park. Henry was a mentor of sorts to Yarbrough; Randy became a devoted friend and fan. Even now, Randy has every one of LeeRoy’s races, every win, committed to memory.
“LeeRoy was my friend; LeeRoy was my hero,” Herren said. “LeeRoy Yarbrough was the greatest race car driver that ever was. When LeeRoy left Speedway Park, we stopped going. To my dad and me, it wasn’t fun anymore. When he left to go to South Carolina, everything kind of changed.”
Yarbrough once told Herren: “I’m the best of the best, and I’m better than the rest. As good as I drove tonight they ought to give me two trophies.”
“After he got big time, I didn’t see him no more,” Dyal said. “Somebody got a hold of him (in NASCAR) and he got lucky, if that’s what you want to call it.”
The big time
Yarbrough made his first NASCAR start at Atlanta in 1960. He started 18th and finished 33rd after crashing on the 60th of 334 scheduled laps. His first pole position came at Augusta, Ga., in 1963, and his first win came in 1964 at Savannah Speedway in a Louis Weatherbee Plymouth.
After that, he made it look easy.
In a span of seven years, Yarbrough won 14 races, including stock car’s triple crown – the Daytona 500, World 600 and Southern 500 – in 1969 for hall of fame car owner Junior Johnson. He also won the Firecracker 400 at the Daytona International Speedway, as well as other races at the Darlington Raceway, North Carolina Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“I think he would have been one of the best drivers of all time,” Johnson said. “He had one thing I’ve never seen out of any other race driver – he had no fear. It was hard to believe. He was as good a driver as I’ve ever seen come across.”
The seven wins in 1969 was the highlight of his short career. It also earned him the prestigious Driver of the Year award.
“LeeRoy knew one speed – wide open,” Richard Petty said.
A year later, Yarbrough’s life started falling apart.
He won the race at Charlotte, N.C., on Oct. 11, 1970, and it was the last time he ever found Victory Lane. Even then, his memory was failing and his behavior was becoming more erratic. He crashed hard while testing tires at the Texas World Speedway in College Station six months earlier.
“He didn’t know where he was for three or four days,” Herren said.
A year later he crashed head-on into the wall while practicing one of Dan Gurney’s Eagles for the Indianapolis 500. The impact split his helmet.
“From that point on, he didn’t know his right hand from his left hand,” Herren said.
There also was a tick bite that may have given him Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Johnson tried to revive Yarbrough’s career, but his moods became more detached and, at times, bizarre. The car owner spent $250,000 on doctors and hospitals. Yarbrough was taken to four different facilities, and none seemed to help.
“I took him to an institution in Asheville (N.C.) and they wound up calling me to come pick him up because he was fighting with everyone,” Johnson said. “I really tried to get him back on his feet, but he couldn’t remember anything. He couldn’t get past certain points of his life. He was sick, and it’s a sad story.
“I only got one good year out of him, but I never stopped trying to help. There was a point at North Wilkesboro I had to tell them to stop the car and get him out. He didn’t know what he was doing. It was something to see someone so talented to be so destroyed with something.”
Back to the Westside
Yarbrough wound up returning to Jacksonville by 1973, about the same time Speedway Park closed. He was taking pain pills for the crashes, often washing them down with alcohol. He stayed with friends and family, becoming more distant, more detached the longer he stayed out of a race car.
“After he came home he was erratic,” said “Wild” Willie Carter, a longtime friend a fierce rival at Speedway Park. “He would rare back and knock the hell out of you for no reason at all. I don’t know what was wrong with him, but he wasn’t right.”
Yarbrough often walked the streets of his old neighborhood, looking for bottles and cans. To those who remember the young, vibrant man of a few years earlier, it was a painful transformation.
“I saw him walking in the ditch one day picking up bottles and it broke my heart,” Odom said. “I gave him $5. I had a $20 in my hand, but I knew he’d only use it for drinking money. I didn’t want to do that.
“The last thing he said was he was sorry about what happened to Ronnie.”
Although LeeRoy couldn’t remember what he had for lunch, his memory allowed him to rewind before the crashes, before the pills and before the alcohol, to remember Van Zant died in an airplane crash in 1977.
On Feb. 13, 1980, he was arrested and charged with attacking his mother. According to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, Yarbrough tried to choke his mother, Minnie. A nephew reportedly smashed a jar of jelly on his head to fend off the attack.
Yarbrough also was charged with fighting with a sheriff deputy who arrived at the scene.
Evelyn Motel said her brother didn’t have any bruises, cuts or bumps a day later. Eldon Yarbrough, LeeRoy’s brother, didn’t believe the story, either.
“There are two or three people who really know what happened that night, but what’s been said is a lie,” Eldon said. “It still makes me mad.
“There were a lot of hard feelings; we had our ups and downs. Me and LeeRoy had a lot of little things. We had a falling out, but we were speaking at the end. He’s still my brother and I love him. What’s been said about my brother has been a bunch of lies.”
Evelyn remembers her brother with a loving reverence. She knows he was tormented by his head injuries and by an entourage that eagerly and selfishly took advantage of his wealth.
“When you’ve got money, you’ve got more friends than you can afford,” Herren said.
LeeRoy gave Willie Yarbrough, who the immediate family believes either was an uncle or a cousin, power of attorney, which gave him the legal authority to handle all of LeeRoy’s assets.
Willie Yarbrough died several years ago. Telephone numbers for Gloria Yarbrough have been disconnected in Jacksonville with no other information.
“I never tried to hate anybody,” Evelyn said. “I really, really have hard feelings toward Gloria and Willie. He was really sick at the time; he didn’t know what he was doing. I’m sure LeeRoy thought he was doing the right thing.”
LeeRoy was found not guilty of assaulting his mother by reason of insanity. He was released to the custody of his sister, Evelyn.
“Me and Eldon and my mother’s sisters believe he didn’t do it,” Evelyn said of the attack on their mother. “People will believe what they want to believe. If I felt my brother had done something like that, do you think I’d lay down and go to sleep in the next room?
“LeeRoy loved our mother.”
Eventually LeeRoy was committed to Northeast Florida State Hospital in Macclenny because he “demonstrated violent tendencies, memory lapses and irrational conduct since 1977.”
He stayed there until the hospital reported that he struck his head after suffering a seizure. Those who knew LeeRoy best believe he probably started a fight he couldn’t finish. There was some talk around the hospital that suggested he may have been thrown to the floor in a fight, but there was no investigation into the incident.
LeeRoy Yarbrough died Dec. 7, 1984. He was 46. The official cause of death was internal brain injury suffered in the fall, much like post-concussion syndrome that’s become an important issue today in the National Football League.
He is buried at Doctors Inlet next to his parents.
“When you die, you want to die with dignity,” Evelyn said. “Whatever destroyed his mind didn’t destroy the memories. He could remember the things in the past, and most of that was good. That’s what I chose to remember about my brother.”
NASCAR voted LeeRoy Yarbrough as one of the 50 greatest drivers in the sport’s history. He’s still remembered by those who watched him race as a fearless, wildly talented driver with an uncontrolled passion to win – and to live.
“He was bigger than life,” Herren said. “As long as I can remember him winning races at Speedway Park, especially that night he won on three wheels, I won’t bury him in my mind. He was the greatest thing I ever saw on a race track.
“I still believe he was the best of the best, and better than the rest.”